There are people for whom eating is no more special than brushing teeth. It’s just a necessity—sustaining the body with nutrients to get through the rest of the day. And then there are those whose lives revolve around food. A considerable portion of the day is spent thinking about the next meal, whether it be planning what to cook or planning what to order. Eating is an experience, every bite to be savored. For these people, Pig is the movie of the year.
From first-time director Michael Sarnoski, the movie stars Nicolas Cage as Rob, a reclusive truffle hunter whose pig is stolen—pigs have a knack for sniffing out the location of the prized fungi. Rob enlists the help of his sole buyer Amir (Alex Wolff), who takes him from the forests of Oregon into Portland to retrieve the kidnapped pet. Amir, however, is reluctant to help Rob, who resembles a homeless man.
But he’s not—far from it, in fact. (SPOILER ALERT) Rob is actually Robin Feld, at one time Portland’s greatest chef who vanished from the restaurant world following the death of his wife. When Amir learns the chef’s true identity, the upstart purveyor becomes a humble servant—Wolff’s performance is a revelation.
Foodies will appreciate three things about Pig. The first is how the movie is broken into three acts: "Wild Mushroom Tart," "Mom’s French Toast and Deconstructed Scallop," and "A Bird, a Bottle, and a Salted Baguette"—all of which bear significance.
The second involves Rob and Amir’s visit to a high-end eatery called Finway’s. It’s not just the incongruence of a forest-dwelling recluse at a white-tablecloth establishment, but also the cheery presentation by the server who explains the intent behind a deconstructed, glass-enclosed scallop dish—molecular gastronomy run amok. It reminded me of my one visit to Eleven Madison Park in New York City, in which every course had a story. (Our table even got to run carrots into a grinder to replicate steak tartare!)
But while at Finway’s, Rob meets the head chef who, it turns out, was his former line cook, fired after two months. Rob asks him if he’s truly happy making this sort of food—because he knows he’s not and that Finway’s real dream was to open an authentic English pub. The exchange is riveting—for foodies, at least.
And finally there’s the Proust’s Madeleine moment. In Swann’s Way (1913) Marcel Proust explained how a mere sip of tea infused with a madeleine cake transported him back to his childhood:
I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.
We see this in movies like The Hundred-Foot Journey, when Hassan, the star chef of Paris, tastes Indian homecooking, sending him into tears. In Ratatouille, when restaurant critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole) takes a bite of the eponymous dish, he is briefly transported back to his childhood when his mother made it for him as comfort food.
In Pig, the moment arrives when Rob makes a meal for Amir’s father (and rival truffle dealer) Darius. It reminds him of a happier time, when he and his wife dined at Rob’s restaurant. The chef tells Darius he remembers every meal he ever made, including the one for him and his wife. If there was an Oscar for two-minute performances, it’d go to Adam Arkin who, as Darius, pulls off the transformation from hard-hearted businessman to a grieving husband in just a few bites.
Food matters—at least for those of us who love to cook, love to eat, and maybe even look at menus online before arriving at a restaurant (you know who you are). In Pig, food is a way to deal with pain and cope with loss. Some might find it a stretch that a meal could trigger a tearful response. But then again, these are probably the same people who give as much thought to eating as they do flossing.